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#EnvironmentalTeshuva

Thursday, September 5, 2019 | 5th Elul 5779

Dear All,

Sadly I wasn’t at the New York Ride last weekend – because we didn’t do one this year. But I send love and gratitude to anyone who ever participated in the Ride, or led the Ride, or funded one of our riders. Watch this space in 2020 for next steps on the Rides. (We’re making two significant hires at the moment, and if you’re interested, or know someone who might be a good fit, here are the job descriptions: Director of Special Events and Manager of the Israel Ride. Also – the last tiny handful of slots are available for the Israel Ride, if you want to join us this year.)

But instead, I was able to be at our fourth JOFEE Network Gathering. (JOFEE = Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming & Environmental Education). It was a remarkable and strong experience. I don’t have good language to explain the nature of it. I could say that it involved learning, and professional development and networking. Honestly – those words are true, to a point, but they convey so little about what we really did.

Prosaically: we brought together 170 or so people who are professionally involved in the JOFEE world. That number, which included all of the fourth JOFEE Fellows cohort and more than 30 other alumni of the first three cohorts is testament to the extraordinary growth of this field. I doff my cap to the amazing people who helped to found and build these many many projects and organizations; and I doff it again with deep gratitude to the people and institutions who support us financially, including so many of you receiving this email; and especially, in this instance, the Jim Joseph Foundation, who have quite boldly and strategically and deeply impactfully become the largest funder in this space, and whose support specifically enabled the JOFEE Network Gathering to take place.

Ok – so we brought these people together and what did we do?

The simplest way that I can put it to you is that we attempted – bravely, messily, seriously, and yet with much laughter and music and beautiful davening and jumping in a lake – we attempted to begin this year’s process of teshuva. Individually, organizationally, and collectively as a field. It was a deeply emotional experience – raw and inquiring and thinking about the nature of teshuva, of repentance and return, in important ways; not just in relationship to the world outside, but in relationship to race and gender and equity inside our organizations and in the Jewish community and in our own lives.

Teshuva involves examining one’s behaviors, and figuring out what we have done wrong, and committing to try to right past wrongs, and striving to do better in the coming year.

So one part of this is the environmental teshuva that every single one of us needs to do this year.

This is the year in which we all of us need to do three things:

  1. figure out the ways we’re contributing to the climate crisis, and make some specific commitment to reduce our own impact. Eat less industrial meat or dairy. Waste less food. Get an electric car. Ride your bike. Fly less and buy less;
  2. commit our Jewish institutions to a process of change. Change doesn’t happen immediately. That’s ok. But start a Green Team. Put yourselves on the waitlist to join the Hazon Seal of Sustainability. Learn about the consequences of your – our – actions, and bring people together to improve them; and
  3. speak out publicly and forcefully. Greta Thunberg invites you to stand in shul at the start of Rosh Hashanah knowing that, at the very least, this year you joined the Global Climate Strike on Friday, September 20th. If there’s an event in your community, go, and bring your friends, and go as proud Jews – make yourself a simple banner that says #EnvironmentalTeshuvaHazon staff will be marching in NYC and we hope you will join usGo to globalclimatestrike.net to find an event near you – and if there isn’t one, just create one, and I promise you people will come.

Read more about environmental teshuva and upcoming events here.

But the JOFEE Network Gathering (rightly or wrongly) took for granted that those of us there would at least do these three things. And so for those of us who are professionally engaged in this field, the question was: is all of that enough? Or, put a different way, what is the teshuva that we ourselves might need to do, over and above the existing work we do?

And so we addressed grief, about how doing this work makes us feel, what it feels like to be alive right now. I’m persuaded this is an important thing to do. We are carrying, many of us, a growing sense of fear and desperation, anger, and grief. I do think it’s necessary to try to open this up a little – not as an endpoint, not to mire oneself in grief, but rather to acknowledge it in order then to move forwards.

And so, with inspired leadership from Yavilah McCoy and backed up in different ways by Abrah Dresdale, Zelig Golden, and our own Hannah Henza and Yoshi Silverstein, we also leaned in to inequity, in our world and our country, in our field, in our organizations, and in ourselves. And with a real focus on those who inside the JOFEE world often have less power or authority or voice, and who outside in the wider world are often the people who bear the brunt of environmental damage, from asthma rates in poorer communities to the devastation in the Bahamas last week. As in other storms, and other parts of the world, it is the poorer people, with the most fragile homes, who have been most devastated.

This work necessarily involves what Joanna Macy calls “active hope” – having a vision of a better world, and acting to build it. Yavilah calls it “beloved community” – not a thing that we have, necessarily, but a thing we aspire to. It is not a coincidence that in the central moment of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we bow down on the ground, the only moment of the year in which we experience the daily Muslim custom of doing so; and just a few moments later we say, as it were for the first time, a line that is repeated in our daily prayers – לתקן עולם במלכות שדי  (l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai). It means something like “to renew or to heal the world in the name of a godly nurturing parent.”

Well, let us try to take that very seriously. Can we live more lightly if we don’t change our ways? Or: put a different way: we can’t just focus outside. We have to pay attention to what it feels like to be a queer person in one of our organizations, or not white, or younger, or not a cisgender male, or not Ashkenazi – and so on. This retreat was pushing us to think about these issues, to learn from each other, to listen to Jews of color, to raise up other voices.

And on the one hand: from its earliest days Hazon has had a deep and genuine commitment to inclusive community. In recent years we’ve backed that up internally with an equity working group (originally a gender equity group, founded in 2016, which subsequently broadened its lens), and externally with some of the work that we’re doing in the metro Detroit area, aiming to engage the Jewish community in quite specific ways to support Oakland Avenue Farm, and some of the communities who bore the multi-decadal consequences of white flight.

And on the other hand: we, like all of our organizations and institutions, have more work to do.

So – much was experienced, there were many tears, much laughter, deep learning. Not all of it will carry through. We step forward and we step back. The reason that we have the cycle of the Jewish year, the reason we have to start the teshuva process all over again, every year, is because – hopefully – each year we are somehow better and kinder and act better to those we know and love, and better to those we do not know and love. And yet, each year, also, we have to strive to do better.

And so it is – I hope for the Jewish community; I hope for the JOFEE field; certainly for Hazon, and for me personally: may we be blessed to be both gentle and courageous. We need to journal, to reflect, and in whatever ways we can, strive to amend past wrongs, and do better in the future.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova,


Nigel